The following is an adjusted version of the introduction for a new book I’ve been working on, The Master Mason. This work is the culmination of nearly a decade of consideration and contemplation over the complexities of what it means to become a master in the masonic system of initiation. It is not the complete work and serves as an introduction to the broader themes explored in its subsequent pages. In a nut-shell, the work is an exploration of Freemasonry and how it relates to the Hermetic tradition, the Kabbalah and other esoteric systems that have at various intersections crossed paths with what we know as Freemasonry today.
Transcending Yesod — The Third Degree of Freemasonry
Third Degree Masonic Tracing Board
“To be or not to be” are the immortal words written by the eminent bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. His question appears in the story of Hamlet made by a lost son striving to find answers to what would, by most, be an unfathomable question which is the essence of the third degree. “To be” is perhaps the oldest of the New Age paradigms stirring echoes across theologies of all cultures said best in the application of the Golden Rule as to do unto others which is Being itself. Like the Golden Rule, in order to do unto others, we must first understand ourselves, the innerness of our being such that we can Be in the first place. This lesson is not something that is wholesale unique to the fraternity of Freemasonry, or this degree, as we find the idea of the Golden Rule transcribed across millennia and within every theological system. So too do we find the testament as a personal gospel of finding our truth. For most, truth is mythology whose philosophical lessons are lost in the dogmas of its authority – its commentaries on the philosophies become more valuable than the philosophies themselves and the value of what was said is lost to the dominion of those who hold authority over them. We must interpret the truths for ourselves so as to find their resonance within us. This is the entirety of the lesson of the third degree, the marrow in the bones of antiquity within which the truth spans all landscapes if the seeker looks deeply enough into its composition. But, as with any concept, truth is itself mutable as generations add or redact its communication creating ever fluctuating permutations and confluences of its principle concepts. Truth is truth, no matter how others dictate its interpretation. It is our own internal mechanisms that decide it for ourselves. For the Mason reading, we, as Hiram, perish in custody of our virtue which in turn is the vehicle of our metaphoric resurrection in being made perpendicular again, a zenith we find in the number three as the union between one and two, duality itself made whole. By reading the degree, whether in the Scottish or York Rite telling, the overtones are distinctly Christian but like the Christian Church itself, the tradition existed well before the consummation of the Gospels and illustrate the depth of antiquity for what they seek to convey. As with every symbolic story, we must look at it with filters and adjudge the entirety by the description of the pieces to achieve a level of perspective over the totality within which it exists. Freemasonry is, if anything else, a conglomerate of ideas, culled together from a variety of sources. So then, to understand its summation we need to look at the Kabalistic connections of this degree as it relates to our Tree of Life progression (see The Apprenticeand Fellow of the Craft) as the degree of the Master Mason resides within the Sephirot of Yesod on the pillar of mercy giving several meanings and parallels. So too will we do well in finding its corresponding relations in the Tarot as Yesod relates to the card of the Four Nines, which is also a source of its symbolic origin. But, our greatest understanding will come as we look at the degree itself to try and make sense of why the master mason is arranged the way it is, given its discordant portrayal when compared with the two that preceded it in both presentation and tone. No longer is the degree about simply the teaching of ideas and social principles, nor is it an indoctrination meant to introduce foreign concepts to the newcomer. No, this degree is about the inner journey, the making of the “transcendent transparent” which it does by introducing, in its present-day conduct, an aspect of itself that strives to teach its lesson through theatrics so as to convey its lesson in a manner reminiscent of a morality play with antecedent’s common at the time of its ritual organization. “To be…or not to be,” that is the challenge that faces each of us as we confront our own inner Hiram. And is the question which will open the door of the future of Masonry in the pursuit of the higher degrees. The esoteric writer Eliphas Lévi says, in his book The History of Magic, “Ordeal is the great word of life, and life itself is a serpent which brings forth and devours unceasingly.” Man, is born into chaos to seek light from that which he was created which, the great tradition of Hermetica tells us, is but merely a reflection, as the moon reflects the light of the sun — an aspect of this tradition we find in the parallel with Yesod. So then, we need a place to begin our study and where best to begin than with the number of the degree itself so as to construct an understanding of the significance of the number three and its relationship to many other traditions as the unifying force of division.
This follow up book to my 2010 project Masonic Traveler – Essays and Commentary is a different approach to understanding the importance and meaning behind the First Degree of Freemasonry.
Taking the approach from the Scottish (French) Rite degrees, this work explores the nuance of symbolic initiation lost in the contemporary system at work in much of the main-stream practice. By using the Scottish Rite First Degree, the meaning and process of the masonic initiation takes on new dimensions why compared to Albert Pike’s First Degree treatise in Morals and Dogma. It is that dimension that this work seeks to explore celebrating the art and history behind the initiation process.
The idea behind this work is that the degree, whether intentional or as a byproduct of revision and deconstruction, is a metaphorical entry point onto the Tree of Life from the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah. That, the first degree, when examined next to the works of other esoteric writers, becomes the foundation degree of initiation as it blossoms into a rich allegorical journey from chaos into order.
While not a tell-all expose into Freemasonry, the work, at a deeper level, is an attempt to understand what it means to BECOME a Freemason.
In this work are:
Two never before seen original poems by the author
Original Art envisioning the meaning of the initiation
Three explorations of the work
Notes to support the thesis
An interesting note, all aspects of the book from its creators hand. Not a pain stream or commercially published work, its creation is with an artisanal work as the product of a loving devotion to the medium and subject matter. Also interesting about the book is that this work is the first of three to round out three ineffable degrees of the fraternity taking us ever higher into the allegorical tree of life.
And, with this announcement I want to publicly thank those who invested in the work through Kickstarter. So, a big round of thinks to:
The following is the introduction to the Fellow of the Craft, a book on the second degree of Scottish Rite Masonry. Where and when the final work will see publication is still to be determined. In the mean time, I thought it would be good to share and discuss.
In totality, the Rite degree differs from the Webb-Preston ritual, as it lends itself to the 32 degrees of Scottish Rite progression. From a traditionalist point of view, these degrees may seem heretical in that they lend themselves to see the 32 degree progression, a divergence from the idea of “no degree greater than the third.”
The title of this complete work is By Wisdom a House is Built which stems from the degree prayer In strength shall this, my house, be established which in itself comes from the 24th Proverb whose 3rd and fourth verse reads:
By wisdom a house is built,
and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled
with rare and beautiful treasures.
The degree of becoming a Fellow of the Craft is, in essence, the building of ones house from foundation to eaves.
Intelligence to understand, Honesty to guide intelligence, Courage to act, Prudence to guide courage, and Love to humanity composed of the four others….
…By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established…
The true alchemist will extract the lessons of wisdom from the babblings of folly…
The second degree is our enigma. Having undertaken the ritual and trials of the first degree, we now are at a crux in that we are in one aspect the coalesced form of Malkuth yet faced with our next stage of evolution, an evolution that necessitates our further need to be transformed and given shape for the tasks before us both here and beyond this degree. To do this we need to study and learn – not simply what it means to be a mason but how that practical application applies to the world around us and our interactions on the material influences that we encounter. Why we do this, you will remember, is to relate our own elemental being, as Malkuth, to the elemental world in which we have both become and inhabit. We are Malkuth, the elemental world, and need to now traverse the path of Tav upon the pillar of mercy towards our apex in the craft lode in becoming Master. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves and must first begin our lesson of the Second Degree and the implementation of our will into manifested action to act the square to all mankind. This is our summation of all things, our end which is without end. In the Christian VSL, it begins with the utterance of the Great Architect in saying “Let there be LVX“, and then there was LVX. So too, as LVX was created man become the blazing star of LVX so too uttering our creative force. To realize that vision, as a traveler, we must climb the steps and reach our gnosis which we do through our wisdom journey to surmount the three steps of our existence, the five steps out antiquity, and the seven steps of knowledge, and only there at the top can we acknowledge our being as a fellow of the craft as it is there that we find our self – the man made manifest as he knocks upon the door of greater illumination. As the warning above the temple door reads, “Know Thyself” because “as what you seek you already are.” Little in this journey will change you in a manner you may expect. Rather it is in the subtle shifting of thought that the greatest and most noble developments will occur. This is the middle chamber, the way before the Holy of Holies which is where the need to transform must take place before venturing forward. While these ideas may seem strange and foreign know that they have been a manner of practice for millennia in the houses of wisdom and schools of the sacred. We cannot say with certainty these ideas existed in their present form but in a manner of cause and effect they have been a part of this sacred practice to bring its students from the earthly state to the celestial so as to see the various heavenly apartments above us in the unfolding universe. This is the mystic tie that binds us – as a fellow of the craft, as a lodge, as a member of humankind, and as one can imagine to the Great Creator. In this chain of union, the brilliance of the sun illuminates us, and the moon and stars sing us the glories of the divine harmony of Truth. As the great author Pike says “Light! All comes from Light, and all returns to it.” Of the many great lessons of this degree to be learned this is the most important to understand.
As the great book itself says, “Let there be LVX!”
The following is the introduction to The Apprentice, a book I’ve been working on for some time and I needed to let it see the light of day before it strangled me. It is not the complete work, rather the first paragraph of twenty pages that follow behind it which explore the ideas and claims made here-in. In a nut-shell the work is an exploration of Freemasonry to the Hermetic system of Kabbalah that, I believe, matured into the systems that practice it today. Those systems, I believe, would not of evolved into what they have were in not for Pike’s work in crafting the Scottish Rite in the the manner he did.
So, I respectfully submit this to you and would delight in hearing your thoughts.
To say there is a first degree of Scottish Rite masonry may come as a surprise. As most commonly practiced, the Scottish Rite is a system of degrees that begins following from the traditional Masonic system in most prevalent practice today of blue, or craft, lodge masonry. Specifically the Scottish rite craft lodge degrees parallel the first three degrees of the Webb Preston York Rite System which is the dominant system of lodge ritual adopted in American Masonry in the early 1800’s.
In an earlier era, and along a parallel development, there existed a similar series of degrees that lead seamlessly into what we know of today as the 4th through 32nd Scottish Rite system. Sadly, only a few lodges today still practice the Rite’s precursor degrees, most notably the blue lodge in Louisiana, as the degrees are said to retain much of their earlier European and French roots. Much of what is contained in those degrees mirror what is common practice in the York degrees, but there are differences and it is in those aspects of divergence that these earlier rituals hold some parlance for the Scottish Rite. To see this we must look to the earlier rituals so that we can find in them the fundamentals of the esoteric scholarship and taught in the Rite as applied by Brother Pike in the present day system. These differences become especially obvious in his degree analysis in Morals and Dogma giving us the opportunity to find out why. For those reading who are not already Scottish Rite masons the degrees, as they are taught in the multitude of valleys across America today, suggest a link between the Scottish Rite teachings by degree to the teachings of mystical Kabbalah, more precisely to the Kabalistic Tree of Life, something brought to the attention of the Scottish Rite candidates in the lecture of the fourth degree. In that fourth degree the connection is made loosely but in close analysis of the progressive degrees it becomes very clear to say that there is a distinct connection between the degrees, the 10 Sephirot and the 22 paths that compose the most universal representation of the esoteric Tree. As the fourth degree mention is a superficial reference it is our starting point to see the two as related and necessitates an extensive exploration of the following degrees within which we can find a multitude of parallels in the Rite’s construction.
As one begins to climb the allegorical Tree, very quickly it becomes obvious that veiled in its canopy are metaphorical links, ineffable symbols, and outright allegorical references to the connections between them — something that many writers, both Masonic and lay, have traced through a variety of esoteric systems of study. Was this system intended to mirror an ancient Jewish system of esoteric theology, or a device made use of by Pike to capture with such detail the similarities that he saw between them?
As you will begin to see it is the latter as the degrees lack the theology of Judaism, rather it takes on a parallel structure borrowing from this older tradition in a way that they become a natural compliment to one another, such that the two have become intricately linked — the Kabbalah of old intermingled with the Christian Mysticism of Cabbalah to become a syncretic blend of spiritual Qaballah unencumbered by strict religious dogma. Throughout his work Pike keeps the systems separate, acknowledging the idea of the one true God keeping the system in a predominately Christian worldview. With the skill of a master artisan, Pike weaves a tapestry of old and new thought together to knit the details of what he sees as the ideas that underlie all modern religions illustrating that importance into the system that is the inheritor of those combined faiths into the Scottish Rite. That choice to link the three degrees of Freemasonry, an old system at the time of his own contributions, revived as best he could the systems of the Hermetic esoteric tradition that we find in several modern magical systems today. But, before those traditions could build on that work Pike welding these disparate systems together into an amalgam of esoterica, such that I believe they have become inseparable from the deeper meaning of the degrees. The lesson with their Qabalistic teachings has been interlaced in a way that to change their composition would change the very nature of the Scottish Rite itself. To that end the degrees, both the lower three and the higher 29 are — in and out of themselves — a complete loop which are formed into a circuit of learning that is its own birth, baptism, and maturation, that ever climbs the Tree towards a pinnacle of completion ending at the 32 degree. But before we get to that zenith, we must first start in the beginning, in the very roots of the Tree of Life, at the point just before the degree system begins where we can start to construct this understanding. That starting point is outside in the space before the door of the lodge room as the aspirant makes his first fateful knocks, which is the essence of what the first degree represents. To enter that space we must start with an explanation of the Kabbalah and our entry point through the degrees of Masonry into the Tree of Life through chaos of Ain Soph becoming the Sephirot of Malkuth.
 No known catalog of ritual practice comparisons is believed to exist.
 Such traditions are likely, in the opinion of the author, outgrowths and parallel developments of the work of Pike in Morals and Dogma and the Scottish Rite. Such groups include the Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientis, Thelema, Theosophy, and other like Hermetic systems.
On our way to the Sanctum Sanctorum, the newly made Mason undertakes a passage through what is commonly called the Middle Chamber. The reference into the middle way is through the temple of Solomon, and the pathway to the Holy of Holies, the adytum in which the Holy Ark of the covenant resides at the the Kodesh Hakodashim, or the place in which deity dwells. In that journey through the middle space, the Second degree brother is introduced to some of the more seemingly secular influenced aspects of the fraternity that begin to take on a double, or symbolic, meaning. On their surface, the basic notions of these things are obvious, but not until you start to look at them closely, at their deeper meanings, that we start to see their relationships to other more esoteric ideas. This is similar to religious traditions where withing one religious text there can be multiple layers of meaning, and multiple ways of interpretation which can lead to an allegorical, a moral, or a mystical meaning.
Indeed, as the degree is symbolically in King Solomon’s Temple, so to can it be seen as a symbolic metaphor to our own internal path, what Joseph Campbell calls the hero quest, and where you “leave the world that you you’re in and go into a depth or into a distance or up to a height.”
This is not to assume that the Masonic degrees have a similar relevancy to sacred or spiritual texts, though some could argue that their significance is almost as powerful to some observants. It is a system of morality that strives to make good men better, which runs nearly in parallel with the many Volumes of the Sacred Law which seeks similar outcomes to achieve as it outlines and instructs its path to elevation. Whether its salvation or spiritual awakening the holy books seek to instruct its adherents to live better lives through their faith, the same that Freemasonry strives to through its practice – to make those good men better. In that process of making the good man a candidate for the degrees is made an entered apprentice, symbolically as he ascends Jacob’s ladder. Once at the top, he is presented a series of three groups of symbols which are set before him to become a Second Degree mason so as they may observe and contemplate them in their path of progression, their hero’s quest, to the third degree.
The story of the degree, from Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor*, picks up after the passage between the twin pillars of the degree with the conductor delivering this instruction:
Brother, we will pursue our journey. The next thing that attracts our attention is the winding stairs which lead to the Middle Chamber of King Solomon’s Temple, consisting of three, five, and seven steps.
The first three allude to the three principal stages of human life, namely, youth, manhood, and old age. In youth, as Entered Apprentices, we ought industriously to occupy our minds in the attainment of useful knowledge; in manhood, as Fellow Crafts, we should apply our knowledge to the discharge of our respective duties to God, our neighbors, and ourselves; so that in old age, as Master Masons, we may enjoy the happy reflections consequent on a well-spent life, and die in the hope of a glorious immortality.
They also allude to the three principal supports in Masonry, namely, Wisdom, Strength. and Beauty; for it is necessary that there should be wisdom to contrive, strength to support, and beauty to adorn all great and important undertakings.
They further allude to the three principal officers of the Lodge, viz.: Master, and Senior and Junior Wardens.
Let’s pause here and consider what some of the deeper meanings of these first steps infer. The first segment is fairly straight forward; with narrative telling us that the three steps allude to the three stages of human life – Youth, Manhood, and Old Age.
Youth is defined as: Young persons, collectively. A young person; especially, a young man. The quality or state of being young; youthfulness; juvenility. The part of life that succeeds to childhood; the period of existence preceding maturity or age; the whole early part of life, from childhood, or, sometimes, from infancy, to manhood.
This is a pretty straight forward idea, especially as it says to us that “we ought industriously to occupy our minds in the attainment of useful knowledge”, but how does this apply to an older initiate, someone who is no longer in his youth. Is it a wistful thought to what was achieved when younger and in still in school? Taken on a deeper level, it could allude to the idea of the degree itself, the First degree being synonymous to mean that in the first, the candidate comes to the lodge as a youth (despite his chronological or physical age) with a clean slate of perception and a clean pallet of interpretation. In a sense, he comes as blank slate to its teachings or to the ideas before him. The degree being his introduction from exterior life to interior life which ushers him both into the fraternity and into the concept of the undertaking. Pike, in the first degree lecture in Morals and Dogma, calls this the focusing of the aspirants “unregulated force” – the channel by which they constrain their previously raw, infantile state, into that of a focused and youthful aspirant no matter their age.
Next, the candidate enters into his Manhood, more literally the 2nd degree, of which the ceremony says of it “we should apply our knowledge to the discharge of our respective duties to God, our neighbors, and ourselves” which is a really active process to live by. We, in essence, are to achieve much by way of our doing, essentially, the work of our daily life towards our deity in worship and practice, our community in which we live and reside, but more specifically as we apply it to ourselves in continuing to apply what we’ve learned in our youth to this state of existence.
The Free Dictionary defines Manhood as: 1. The state or time of being an adult male human. 2. The composite of qualities, such as courage, determination, and vigor, often thought to be appropriate to a man. 3. Adult males considered as a group; men. 4. The state of being human.
In the third entry, we can take much from it beyond it simply being our middle state of being. It is in fact our ability to BE in the first place, our SELF in daily practice. Interesting as this is, the second degree in which our further education takes place is not only about the practice of our youth but also our ability to learn and apply that education to our life.
Campbell says of the age progression that “As a child, you are brought up in a world of discipline, of obedience, and you are dependant on others. All this has to be transcended when you come to maturity, so that you can live not in dependency but with self-responsible authority.” This is, in essence, the heart of the three degree progression and the fundamental of the three steps – he becoming a man (or woman, respecting your discipline)!
Old age is a bit more of a troubling and complex issue. So often in modern society we look at old age as a point of retirement where work and physical activity dramatically changes or diminishes. In this description, the idea of old age holds true in that the degree says of old age that in it “we may enjoy the happy reflections consequent on a well-spent life, and die in the hope of a glorious immortality”
There are several interesting meanings we can take from this especially that it is in the degrees that these physical changes are metaphorically said to take place which can become a literal interpretation, and that once attained the Master Mason can live through them – literally to reflect on the life well spent. What’s troubling here is that the major portion of the work of the lodge is spent in the third degree and a caution must be considered so as to not see the work of the Master Mason as just one of reflection and of casual rest lest no work, as described in Manhood, be completed.
Old Age is essentially defined as ones age nearing or passing the average life span of human beings, and thus at the end of the human life cycle. In the U.S. this is considered to be 78 years old giving a distinct impression as to when one should then become a True Master. It really is at a twilight of life period, one of great age and maturity where little change and much reflection takes place. This gives us an interesting perspective on the meaning as it implies a near end of physical life period of time which squares with the degrees lesson as the period of reflection of a life well spent. We become the Master of our all, ready to pass our knowledge on to the next generation.
With this vantage, we can take pause to deeply consider that our daily working of the degrees, intrinsically, could (or should) be conducted in the 2nd state, our manhood in which we conversely learn and grow.
Symbolism of the Second Degree
Cirlot, in his Dictionary of Symbols, makes an interesting point in that the idea of progression in the stages of age is not unique to Masonry. Besides the stages themselves, the number three (3) is a representation of synthesis and unites the “solution of conflict posed by dualism.” In other words, the third object brings about balance for the first two opposing states. Think of the balance of three dots, one stacked above two.
From this point, the degree breaks off to correlate these first steps with the three principal pillars of the lodge as Wisdom, Strength and Beauty which also has an interesting Kabalistic point of reference in the three pillars that make up the structure of the tree of life. Keep in mind, the orientation assumes the viewer reverse the structure to mirror ones own standing rather than simply reflect the observer.
Wisdom, the left hand pillar of mercy, is an active pillar and representative of alchemical fire, which is the principal of spirituality, often called the pillar of Jachin. It is a masculine pillar, and relates to our mental energy, our loving kindness, and our creative inspiration as we traverse it up the Kabbalaistic tree through the Sephirot.
Strength is the right hand pillar and takes the form of severity, shaped into the alchemical symbol of water. It can represent darkness, but it is a passive symbol that is feminine in nature and called the pillar of Boaz. Upon it we find the points of our thoughts and ideas, our feelings and emotions, and the physicality of our physical experience, our sensations, each an aspect of its Cabalistic progression.
Beauty, then, takes on the role of synthesis of the two, the pillar of mildness; it is upon this pillar that the novitiate is transformed through his progressive states as he progresses. The central pillar of Beauty is representative of Jehovah, the Tetragrammaton which represents deity itself upon which our crown of being resides balanced through feeling and emotion from our foundation of justice and mercy, all of which springs from our link to the everyday world.
These aspects of the Kabbalah are not specific attributes of the study in the blue lodge, rather elements of deeper esoteric study, found more specifically in the degrees of the Scottish Rite. Because of the pillars, and their deeper symbolic meaning, it does, however, necessitate looking at them deeper to see the relationship between them as the blue lodge degrees seem to have parallels in the study of the Kabbalah – a happy accident at some time past or with purpose to link the ideas together. Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty are specific aspects of the lower three degrees and emphasized here in the first three steps into the middle chamber, necessitating their deeper esoteric study to fully grasp their broader importance.
As the degree instructs – Wisdom is to contrive, Strength is to support, and Beauty is to adorn all great and important undertakings – which are the fundamentals of the three pillars in the Kabbalaistic study.
Conversely, as the degree states, these three pillars “allude to the three principal officers of the Lodge, viz.: Master, and Senior and Junior Wardens.” and can be interpreted as such in both a micro (in lodge) fashion and in a broader macro tradition of Masonry itself – in this Kabbalaistic formulation. When the alchemical aspects of wisdom and strength are combined we can see the 6 pointed star appears, the symbol of transformation, often depicted in the conjoining of the square and compass in which Masons are instructed to square their actions and circumscribe their passions, which also corresponds to the link between the Saints Johns – the Baptist as the principal of alchemical water, and the Evangelist as the symbol of alchemical fire, both of whom have much deeper esoteric connections in Masonry. Also, the figures of the lodge leadership have a deeper connection as you begin to look at their alchemical connections too, when you look at their relationship to the Sun and moon, and the aspirant candidate as the solution of conflict, as Cirlot described, and as defined in the first degree – the three sphere aspect to balance the two of conflict.
From these short first few tentative steps, we can see that there is a wealth of Masonic symbols at hand, but we are only one third into our progression. Our next step takes us deeper into the middle chamber to its central position where we encounter an interesting juxtaposition of the physical world to our very human aspect of being through our senses.
For now, reflect a time on these first three steps and consider what comes next upon the path.
 Campbell, Joseph, “The Power of Myth”, p. 129 ibid*Duncan’s Ritual Monitor is the most universal aspect of the degrees and widely available in public circulation so as to get a glimpse of the Masonic degrees. Its publication, originating in 1866 and has been has been republished many times since. It includes the three blue lodge degrees of the Ancient York Rite, and four additional advanced degrees of the York Rite.
Freemasonry and the Qabbalah have a tacit relationship. In many deep philosophical discussions, the two often come up as being interrelated but just as often leave the conversation without a clear connection defined. As a Mason, we can start to study where the Jewish Mysticism has been woven in, but without a deep degree of study and practice, the two still seem as distant as night and day.
On this episode of Masonic Central, our guest Timothy Hogan joins us to talk about this mysticism and help us join some of the loose threads the three degrees with the various paths and points on the Tree of Life.